James Baldwin Biography

At a Glance

African American author James Baldwin, primarily explores issues of injustice and identity. His first novel, the semi-autobiographical Go Tell it On the Mountain (1953) and his essay collections, like Notes of a Native Son (1955) are among his better-known works. 

Born in 1924 in Harlem, Baldwin never knew his biological father, his mother was impoverished, and his stepfather was abusive. Baldwin himself was gay and had to live, oppressed not only by intolerance toward his skin color, but also toward his sexuality.

To escape being pigeon-holed as a writer and as a person, Baldwin traveled to Europe in 1948, though still spent much of his life in the United States, for instance in 1957, while the Civil Rights Act was being debated in Congress. 

Facts and Trivia

  • Baldwin became a preacher at the age of fourteen and delivered sermons for three years, but he later left the church entirely.
  • Baldwin finished Go Tell It on the Mountain not in Harlem, the city of his upbringing and setting of the novel, but in Switzerland.
  • Baldwin was of great interest to the F.B.I., which purportedly held more than 1,750 files on his activities.
  • One of Baldwin’s most quoted maxims is “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111201176-Baldwin_J.jpg James Baldwin (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: During the racial unrest in the United States in the 1960’s, Baldwin was the most visible and respected literary figure in the Civil Rights movement. His best work has focused on racial concerns and on homosexuality.

Early Life

James Baldwin, the son of Berdis Jones Baldwin and the stepson of David Baldwin, a Baptist preacher, was born and grew up in New York City’s black ghetto, Harlem; he was the oldest of nine children. By the time he was fourteen years old, Baldwin, then a student in New York’s De Witt Clinton High School, was preaching in Harlem’s Fireside Pentecostal Church. His earliest writing appeared in The Magpie, his high school’s student newspaper, to which he contributed three stories before becoming coeditor in chief, a job he shared with fellow student Richard Avedon.

Upon graduation from high school in 1942, Baldwin, rejected for military service, took a job working for a railroad in New Jersey. He had just renounced the church and, although he never went back to it and scorned Christianity for what he perceived as its racism, much of the rhythm of black preaching and much of the drama of evangelical church services are found in most of his work. Baldwin sought refuge in the church during an uncertain period in his adolescence, but as he analyzed seriously his position as both a member of a racial minority and a homosexual, he found in literature more helpful solutions to the problems that plagued him than he had found in religion.

Between 1942 and 1944, Baldwin held menial jobs, some of them in the thriving wartime defense industries. A turning point came for him in 1944, when, having moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, he met Richard Wright, one of the leading black writers in the United States. Baldwin was working on his first novel, “In My Father’s House,” at that time. Although the novel remained unpublished, Wright arranged for Baldwin to receive the Eugene F. Saxton Memorial Trust so that he could concentrate on his writing. Baldwin first appeared in print in 1946 in The Nation, where he published a book review. He also wrote book reviews for The New Leader during the same year.

In 1948, Baldwin, slight of stature and with a countenance that reflected both intensity and anguish, received the Rosenwald Fellowship. This award enabled him to move to Paris. That year, he also published an essay, “The Harlem Ghetto,” and a short story, “Previous Condition,” in Commentary. Baldwin was to live abroad for the next decade, in the middle of which his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953), was published.

Life’s Work

Baldwin’s first two novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room (1956), are autobiographical. The former concentrates on the problems of growing up black in a predominantly white United States. The book explores the impact that religion has had on the black experience in the United States and accurately depicts the economic and social struggles with which black families cope on a regular basis. The book is also concerned with the sexual tensions that exist for the black who is coming of age and who is beset by deep-seated interracial conflicts.

Giovanni’s Room, set in France, was one of a rash of novels on homosexuality to appear between 1948 and 1956. The protagonist’s lover, Giovanni, kills an older man who forces him into a sexual encounter and is duly tried, found guilty, and executed for this crime. David, the protagonist, has to cope not only with the guilt of his homosexuality but also with feelings of not having been the loyal friend that Giovanni needed.

When Go Tell It on the Mountain appeared, Baldwin was working on a play, The Amen Corner, that was performed at Howard University in 1954 but that took nearly a decade to reach Broadway, where it was produced in 1964 largely because of the New York success of Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, which the American National Theater Association (ANTA) brought to Broadway in the spring of 1964.

The publication of Go Tell It on the Mountain led to Baldwin’s being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954, which afforded him the opportunity to do extensive revisions on The Amen Corner and to complete his much-acclaimed Notes of a Native Son (1955), a fierce, well-written book that articulates the outrage which Baldwin, as a sensitive black American, felt because of the social inequities that face blacks. Perhaps this book makes its greatest impact with its contention that racial hatred destroys not only the objects of that hatred but also the people who are possessed by it. Notes of a Native Son was to become one of the most...

(The entire section is 1987 words.)